CHAMPAIGN — Two years ago, faced with the grim reality that she would not win her battle with cancer, Jen Smith quit her job as a student services adviser at Parkland College.
“I decided with whatever time I have left, I’m going to focus on living,” the Champaign native said. “And not just living, but living legendary was the slogan I went by.”
On Sunday, Smith advised members of the Illinois women’s basketball team to do the same when she joined players and coaches at a pregame breakfast.
By the Champaign native’s definition, living legendary includes reacting to and making choices in the face of adversity.
“Because everybody has challenges in their life, whether it’s cancer or divorce or financial difficulties,” Smith said. “Everyone has something. It’s how you deal with it.”
The Champaign native was 30 when she was diagnosed in 2007 with breast cancer. Her initial treatment — surgery, chemotherapy, radiation — appeared to be successful, and Smith was told she was in remission.
Three months later, in a checkup, Smith learned that the cancer not only had returned but spread to her bones. At that point, Smith was told, the average life expectancy for a person in her situation was less than three years.
“So I am well on borrowed time and aware of that,” said the 35-year-old, who will mark another birthday in March.
“Age is a privilege in Cancer Land, so I’m happy,” Smith said.
She’s happy, too, for opportunities like Sunday’s Play 4Kay pink game Sunday at the Assembly Hall. Illini players wore pink uniforms and Minnesota’s players had pink trim on their white uniforms as part of an annual initiative by the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association to raise awareness about breast cancer.
Smith was among the cancer survivors and current patients who were recognized on the court at halftime. Smith, whose sister Sara Arnold is the Illini’s team chaplain, joined players and coaches on the bench for the game.
At the pregame breakfast, Smith encouraged the Illini to play “legendary today, so they would hopefully come out with a win.”
That message — and more — got through to the players.
“We take this seriously, and being able to play in pink and represent everybody who’s fighting it or has beat it is very important,” Illini guard Amber Moore said.
“She talked about how she quit her dream job just to go live (and) just cherish every moment,” UI center Karisma Penn. “It’s kind of like cherishing every possession in the game.”
Smith said she was particularly moved by the message in a song performed at halftime by country music singer Kristy Osmunson. “Fight Like a Girl” was written in memory of a friend who died after an eight-year battle with breast cancer.
“So often, the story is someone gets diagnosed, they go through treatment and then they’re all better — and life goes back to normal,” Smith said. “And that hasn’t happened for me.
“So it’s so powerful that that song gave a voice to the metastatic community, which is often overlooked in breast cancer awareness.
“We’re the dark side of the pink ribbon that nobody wants to acknowledge.”
Smith shines. Illini sophomore Alexis Smith recorded a game-high nine assists Sunday, her most since Nov. 29 against Wake Forest and her third most of the season.
Just as important to Smith’s coach was the fact that his point guard turned the ball over merely once.
“(She) had a poise about her that was important,” Matt Bollant said. “There’s other times when we’ve been rattled a little bit, and today she was a little more calm and helped our team.
“I challenged her to step up and lead and get us into what we’re doing (offensively), and she did a good job with that.”
Fan appeal. Sunday’s game drew 2,703 fans, the second most for an Illini home game this season and the largest for one in which admission was charged.
Illinois has averaged 1,923 fans in 13 home games. Last season, the Illini drew an average of 1,070 in 11 home games.